Friday, August 16, 2019

An 1897 Remake - No. 156 Franklin Street

The cast iron base is all that remains of the original 1874 design.

On April 30, 1874 Isaac Rodman sold the 25-foot wide, three story building at No. 156 Franklin Street to Daniel O Archer.  Archer, who lived in Tarrytown, New York, paid $15,000 for the property, or about $341,000 today.   He already owned the 50-foot wide plot directly behind at Nos. 38 and 40 North Moore Street.  Within the month architect Griffith Thomas filed plans for an "iron and brick store and oil factory."  The  building would engulf both the Franklin and North Moore Street properties.

The district was already filling with apparel and grocery firms, however, and the oil factory would not last in the new building especially long.  In April 1881 Archer hired contractor W. A. & F. E. Conover to build a wall across the rear of No. 156 Franklin Street, separating it from the North Moore Street portion.  

Turle & Skidmore, importers of "table waters," leased No. 156 Franklin Street.  Still here a decade later, an advertisement in June 1892 in the New-York Tribune led off "Hotel Keepers, Cafe Keepers and Restaurant Keepers ATTENTION!"  It asserted that its Manitou brand Table Water and Ginger Champagne "are the favorite beverages with all, and it will be to your advantage and profit to increase your stock NOW."

Shortly after that ad was published J. H. Mohlman & Co. leased both the Franklin Street and North Moore Street sections of the building.  The Evening Post remarked that it was rented as a "double building, of five stories fronting North Moore Street, and a single building of four stories on Franklin Street."

Although the partition wall was left intact, J. H. Mohlman & Co. did extensive renovations to the property for its wholesale grocery business.   The Franklin Street side was used mainly as a warehouse above the storefront.  In the North Moore Street building, the ground floor was used for storing heavy stock like molasses and sugar, with the offices and showrooms on the second floor.  The top floors held canned goods, cereals, hominy, rice, flour and similar items.

The firm had wisely kept the heaviest stock on the first floor.  But a large shipment received the week of April 20, 1895 necessitated weighty barrels and crates being taken upstairs.  It ended horribly.

On April 30 The Evening Post began an article saying "'First a rumble, then a crash, and then fire' is the significant account given by the most trustworthy witnesses of the accident which reduced a well-packed five-story building at Nos. and 40 North Moore Street this morning to a burning mass of debris and groceries.  The building was an old one, but it had been rebuilt for the use of J. H. Mohlman & Co., wholesale grocers, recently."

The beams could not withstand the weigh and had collapsed.   Broken pipes leaked illuminating gas which then ignited.  "The collapse was very compete.  The roof, front and rear wall, and all the floors went down, leaving only the side walls standing," said The Evening Post.  "Fire broke out at once."

No. 156 Franklin Street fared a little better than the North Moore building, which was a total loss.  "Part of the rear wall of No. 156 Franklin Street was broken in, and parts of the floors there, with some of Mohlman & Co.'s stock, were carried down."  Nevertheless, the building was heavily damaged.  "The flames penetrated to the Franklin Street building and poured out through the front window there.  In fact, the loss by fire is the heaviest in that part of the building."

Escaping damage was the building next door at Nos. 152-154 Franklin Street, home of the Eisner & Mendelson Company.  Like Turle & Skidmore the firm imported "foreign manufactured mineral waters and malt extract tonics."  Founded in 1882 as a partnership between Moritz Eisner and Joseph Mendelson, by now Benjamin Bleier had bought out Eisner.  

Eisner & Mendelson Company's handling of the American trade of Johann Hoff's Malt Extract entangled the firm in years of trademark fighting in courts.
Daniel O. Archer sold the damaged Franklin Street building to Benjamin Bleier.  In December 1897 the firm of Stein, Cohen & Roth filed plans to drastically repair and renovate the structure.  Despite that firm's name, there was only one architect, Emery Roth, actually practicing.  His plans called for adding two stories, installing "new steel floor construction" and "alteration in front."  The costs were projected at $25,000, or more than $780,000 today.

When Roth was done only the cast iron base of Griffith Thomas's 1874 structure was recognizable.  Now six stories tall, Roth faced the upper floors in beige brick and made ample use of cast iron in the central section to make vast expanses of windows possible.  In contrast to Thomas's staid storefront, Roth gave the upper floors an ebullient Beaux Arts face.  A projecting bay at the second floor, most likely intended for an office or showroom, was decorated with trailing bell flowers.  Carved ornamentation included lions snarling above garlands of fruits and ribbons, a cartouche with foliate decorations, and two lovely scrolled ornaments upholding the fifth floor cornice which delicate cut into the corners.  The sixth floor was sparsely ornamented under a pressed metal cornice.

Until recent years the name of Eisner & Mendelsohn Company was legible on the panel above the fourth floor.
Almost immediately after moving in, the firm sold the building to Bleier's wife, Josephine.  The New York Times, on June 5, 1898 explained, "The sellers will continue to use the premises under a ten years' lease."  

Eisner & Mendelson Company remained in the building past the turn of the century, continuing to act as agents for manufacturers' sometimes questionable products.  An advertisement in The Scranton Tribune on March 10, 1899, for instance was entitled "Woman's Greatest Enemy" and urged "To cure sick headache by natural means take the Carlsbad Sprudel Salt.  It is a certain remedy for disordered stomach, constipation, etc."

This 1899 ad claimed the Johann Hoff's Malt Extract was "essential for mankind."  The Sun, May 10, 1899 (copyright expired)
An advertisement two years later in The Sun promised that the same product was equally effective for male problems.  "Men who sit down much are usually troubled with indigestion, dyspepsia or ailments that follow--such as kidney complaints, nervous disorders, lazy liver, constipation, etc."  Carlsbad Sprudel Water, it promised, "is a medicine prepared by nature.  It cures."

In 1902 Eisner & Mendelson Company was replaced in the building by H. B. Kirk & Co.  Before it moved in an additional story was added.  An announcement in the New-York Tribune on April 19 read:

This year marks the close of a half century during which we have transacted business on Fulton Street.  After April 21st we will occupy the spacious seven story building, No. 156 Franklin Street, as our present quarters are wholly inadequate for our steadily increasing business.

Headed by Harford B. Kirk, the firm sold a wide range of products, from hard liquor like Old Crow Rye, to expensive imported wines and aperitifs.  

The Sun, June 21, 1903, (copyright expired)

On November 11, 1907 Josephine Bleier sold No. 156 to Ralph L. Spotts who, not coincidentally, was vice-president of H. B. Kirk & Co.    

Spotts was, incidentally, a colorful character.  He was also a partner in the Cantono Electric Tractor Co., but his fame came from his expert marksmanship.  

On November 21, 1910, for instance, The New York Times reported on the shooting matches of the Larchmont Yacht Club.  "Ralph L. Spotts carried off the honors of the day, for he not only won the fist prize of the season as high gun with a score of 119, but he also won the ten and five bird scratch events, and the leg for the Sauer gun.  He also won the 200 target match."

A member of the New York Athletic Club, he was on the 1912 American Olympic trapshooting team.   For years his name appeared in sporting magazines like Field & Stream as he continued to add silver cups and trophies to his collection.

In February 1922 T. J. Van Houten & Zoom leased the entire building.  Its product could not have been more different from those of H. B. Kirk & Co.--powdered cocoa and toffee.

T. J. Van Houten & Zoom handled the American sales of the Dutch-manufactured products.  An advertisement in the Buffalo Evening News on December 21, 1923 said of Van Houten's Dutch Cocoa "Every Sip a Treat!"  It went on to say that its "wonderful toffee" was "the kind Mother would have made if she had only known how!"

The firm did not remain especially long.  In 1925 the building was leased to the Martin Miller Co., manufacturers of bakery ovens and home heating appliances.  The company sub-leased the fourth floor that year to the Wayne Woodworking Co.

A photo for city tax purposes before mid-century shows that the fire escape had already cut through the cornice.  photo via NYC Department of Records & Information Services

It may have been the onslaught of the Great Depression that caused No. 156 to be vacant in January 1930.  It was advertised for lease as having a "low insurance rate."

Throughout the next six decades tenants came and went while the Tribeca neighborhood slowly changed.  The provisions dealers and the "egg and dairy" merchants were pushed out as artists and yuppies discovered the vast loft spaces.  In 1993 No. 156 was converted to residential space with just one loft apartment per floor.

Regrettably the fire escape that zig-zags down the front of the building and maliciously cuts through the first and sixth floor cornices obscures Emery Roth's handsome Beaux Arts factory building.   Despite that despoiling, the building is worth a pause to take in the details--especially those wonderful corner-snipping scrolls at the fifth floor.

photographs by the author

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